How to talk about the malaise in France right now?
On the one hand, one could choose to avoid it entirely. It is the oldest, most hackneyed France topic in the books, that every journalist living in or working on France any time in the past 15 years has addressed at some point (including myself in this post in July 2013, in which I cited a column by the New York Times journalist Richard Cohen on Frenchmoroseness, in which he cited a previous column he’d written about the same topic…sixteen years earlier). France’s decline is something of a 21st century French sport.
But now, to use another consummately 21st century idea, France may be at a tipping point.
I suspect I may be among the few to believe France is capable of anything any more, French observers foremost among those who are despondent and “desperately looking for reasons to believe,” as columnist Françoise Fressoz wrote (paywall) in Le Monde this week. But this is not just conventional French décliniste existentialism. This is France today: groping desperately. And Foreign observers tend to be even more frankly pessimistic.
I believe France could tip either way: either toward a painful and undoubtedly disfiguring series of supply-side reforms that go against the grain of what France has always intimately been about, changes that would actually alter France’s identity but that might jumpstart the national motor. A life-saving disfigurement.
Or France could tip toward a more contemporary European drift that would lead them to choose between a tattered and impotent political establishment—a Socialist party in which no one believes and is weakened by in-fighting, and a rudderless UMP party also weakened by in-fighting—and the far right. Right now, if president François Hollande were to run against Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front party, polls show that she just might win. How would that be for disfigurement?
So what would it take to tip France toward life-saving disfigurement as opposed to a disfiguring extreme right? As French journalist Jean Lesieur describes in his excellent recently-published roman à clef, Le Bal des Chacals (“The Festival of Villains”), France had always been a country that has lived with open secrets and a culture of agreeing not to acknowledge what everyone knows is going on. But there is currently a duo of socialist ministers who are spectacularly breaking that longstanding culture of omertà.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls last week decided to resurrect a rarely-used constitutional measure called the 49-3 that allows him to ramrod a law through parliament. The law is Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to allow more businesses to be open on Sundays and after-hours (that I wrote about a few months ago), part of a series of measures that have afforded both ministers the epithets of “social-democrats” (i.e. socialists with free-market friendly leanings).
They are attacked from the left wing of their own party for disfiguring socialist principles, for re-engineering the fundamentals of socialist ideology and changing the identity of the party. They are attacked from the right-wing UMP opposition for disfiguring the democratic process, for the weakness that resorting to this measure allegedly betrays.
The two ministers are, however, leading an attempt at structural reform. This particular reform is something of a declaration of the end of the way things were: the end of a country that, in regulating the hours of business, had institutionalized a right to leisure, a culture in which not working is a social good, and in which the good life is defined by many things other than work. This is (was) a wonderful part of French culture and it informs it in countless intangible ways. It may endure to some extent, but it won’t be the same. That is painful.
But France, in order to survive, will not come out looking the same. This is just one symbolic example of the kind of structural reform required—and the kind of painful disfigurement it will necessarily cause. France can simply no longer afford to be itself anymore. At the end—if things tip that way—France will in fact no longer be the same.
The tipping point is now, and the choice is between what France is least unwilling to become next.